30 @ 30: (not) being a parent [#4]

I've had a hard time finding my way into this post, and while the reasons are several I'm going to use my allotted space this week to talk about one in particular: the odd and unexpectedly liminal space I find myself in these days regarding parenting and childcare. I want to talk about my own feelings about childcare and potential parenting as they've evolved over the years, and I want to talk about the network of relationships and examples that have created the context in which those feelings have evolved. I'm specifically thinking here about my own desires and abilities to conceive, give birth to and/or adopt and raise children as a primary caregiver. I've already written lots in this space about the importance of incorporating children into the human family and how I think our culture falls down in this regard (see herehere, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, and here ... I really gotta make a separate index page for these things). Today, I'd like to talk in more personal terms about what the decision to parent or not parent means in my own life right now.

I grew up in an environment that revolved around the daily experience of being a child. There are a lot of different ways being child-centric can manifest itself (for more on my own particular version go here). I would say that, from a child's perspective, my family life normalized the primacy of caring for young people as a central task of being human, and also modeled that care-taking as an activity that was integrated into the "real" world -- as opposed to being something one did either as a school teacher or (necessarily) as a "stay at home mom." Yes, my mother was the parent dedicated to arranging our home life, but my parents didn't back this decision up with ideology concerning gender. This meant that I grew up believing that: 1) caring for children was an important and legitimate adult responsibility 2) it was work that required full-time attention from someone or someone(s) to do well, and 3) this important responsibility was not "naturally" women's job, but rather something that one did out of a sense of vocation. And because it was simply what family members did: look out for one anothers' needs.

At age three, I thought I'd grow up to be Nora (Helen Reddy)
from Pete's Dragon. Lighthouse keeper and adoptive parent
-- what could possibly be better?
In the manner of most children (at least I assume this is so?), I imagined that growing up to be an adult meant more or less growing up to take on the sort of responsibilities my parents and the other adults around me had. And that meant, in part, the responsibility of being a parent. I was an oldest child (and daughter) who positioned myself in my pre-adolescent and early adolescent years as someone who both liked parenting and was good at it. Younger children seemed comfortable with me. I was comfortable with them. As a girlchild I obviously got tons of positive social reinforcement for this behavior. (To be fair, my brother was also a nurturer, did childcare as a teenager, and today teaches middle school ... so this wasn't a completely gendered phenomenon. But I'm willing to bet I was meeting gendered expectations on some level.) Childcare also, actually, gave me an easy "out" when it came to socializing with my peers -- something I felt generally awkward about. With the exception of spending time with close friends, as a child and adolescent I was pretty much constantly on the lookout for opportunities to ditch my age-mates in order to hang out with grown-ups (I wanted to be one) and smaller children (caring for them gave me an adult-like excuse to avoid my peers).  Caring for children was a legitimate role. And I did genuinely like the wee ones I was responsible for. 

When I was five I wanted to be Maria from The Sound of Music.
If you're going to adopt, why stop at just one?
In that context, to the extent I imagined being an adult, I imagined being a parent. My best friend (coughcough childhood crush coughcough) and I had a long-standing fantasy about adopting lots of orphans and raising them together. As I went through puberty I developed a massive obsession with the physiology and sociology of pregnancy and childbirth (thank you Our Bodies, Ourselves and the other literature of the women's health movement!). I had very concrete ideas about what sort of pregnancy and birth experience I wanted when it came to having kids -- however, whenever that happened. As the realm of possibilities for family creation expanded, my sense of how I might parent (and with whom) shifted, but I never entirely dropped the idea of being a parent someday. During my teen years and early twenties I learned some things about myself, including the fact that I wasn't really interested in parenting in the context of a dyadic relationship in which I would be the full-time hands-on caregiver. At the same time, I remained committed to the sort of out-of-the-mainstream parenting that had been my own childhood experience. The only way I could see that sort of parenting happening in conjunction with my personality would be to have co-parenting with probably more than one other person, either in a co-housing or communal setting, in a committed poly marriage, or some other heretofore unspecified situation.

Because such a situation was so difficult to imagine establishing successfully, I started re-evaluating my assumption that being an adult me would involve parenting. I was lucky enough to have family members who didn't pressure me to settle into a heteronormative family and start popping out babies, and also lucky enough to be surrounded not only by folks who had parenting radically (the homeschooling/unschooling community) but also by some really kick-ass single and non-parenting adults -- notably single and non-parenting women -- whom I could look to as models for what it would mean to be a not-parent.  My father's sister, for example, is now married with an adult stepson, but spent the majority of my childhood as a single female academic pursuing her PhD in theology and an MS in Social Work. A close family friend who was likewise single for years used to have dinner with our family regularly and provide childcare when my parents needed a break; being without children himself did not seem to impede his ability to be close with us or with his nieces and nephews. In college of the six female professors who I'd identify as the most influential in my academic career, three were single when they had me as a student and four were not parenting. All four of those women were living examples of how to be a whole person and build relationship networks without a marriage or children.

I took some flak from a couples' counselor a year or so ago for starting to answer her question about whether I did or did not want children (Hanna's immediate answer: "No") by providing all of this background. Hanna pointed out to me later that the therapist -- being unfamiliar with how my mind worked -- probably thought I was evading her query. I wasn't, but I honestly didn't know how to answer her in any other (more succinct) way. Because my current location on the parenting continuum is a result of all these experiences, and that location is situational. Unlike people who experience bodily knowledge about their desire to parent or not parent, I am comfortable in the in-between space of offering my skills as a caregiver where and when I am called upon to do so.

Gwen Cooper and Baby Cooper (Torchwood).
This is how I picture Hanna's parenting would be (sans pink).
For the fucking win.
This frightens Hanna sometimes, the fact that my resistance to being a parent isn't as complete as hers. We're still working out how to negotiate that. While I don't need (and for a number of reasons don't actively want) to be a parent or primary caregiver, I also don't experience the passionate rejection of that role that Hanna and some of our close friends articulate. I want to stay open to our lives and desires changing. Not because I think being a parent (or more specifically a mother) is something we need to lead fulfilling lives as women, or to have coherent and meaningful identities. But because I, personally, have a very difficult time taking any possibility off the table permanently. Closing and locking doors frightens me, makes me feel claustrophobic.

I also want to stay open to the accidental parenting. Obviously, the chances of this happening given our collective anatomical make-up are incredibly slim, but I still want to stay alive to the possibility that at some point in the future we may be called upon to parent in some way: the children of friends or relatives, for example, in need of a temporary home. Gods forefend anything so traumatic happening to the people we love -- but I live with the knowledge that shit sometimes does hit the fan, and I want to be there for the vulnerable survivors if it does.

All of this leaves me in what feels like a bit of a no man's land when it comes to the current state of our cultural assumptions about parenting. In a landscape where children and families are simultaneously idolized and marginalized, and where single and non-parenting adults (particularly women) feel vilified for their decision not to parent, the pressure to "choose sides" is intense and I find it hard not to feel rendered invisible as a non-parent who is neither proudly childless by choice nor mourning her infertility and/or circumstances unconducive to parenting. I feel bi-lingual, in a sense, able to speak the language of parenting and of not-parenting with equal willingness and ease. I can see my future life unfolding in multiple directions, and I'm okay with that. Most of the time. But certainty about uncertainty (e.g. openness-to-change) is sometimes a more difficult position to articulate or defend than is certainty about certainty. Which is perhaps why it's taken me two weeks and this meandering blog post to do so -- and why our couples' therapist thought I was evading the question.

I'm going to pick up the theme of openness-to-change in next week's post on "desire." In the meantime, this is what I got. I hope it at least approximates what I set out to offer.

1 comment:

  1. as always I very much enjoyed your post and your thoughtful take on the issue. Your explanation of being "between worlds" made a lot of sense and like so many issues when we might feel forced to "take sides" (sexuality, race, etc) it can be a lonely space at times.

    I've recently read several pieces on the marginalization of women without children and it is something that I am really struggling to appreciate. As a mother of five I have experienced many challenges in my efforts to have both my children and myself recognized as full human beings despite our relationships and ages. I also have several women friends in my life who will not be parenting either by choice or life circumstance (but not in the mourning type of way, more similar to your experience) and other than the occasional stupid comment or nosy relative they seem to have very few struggles - far from what I would term "marginalization".

    But I'm also not one to dismiss the lived experiences of others so am really trying to understand where those feelings are originating. And sometimes it is harder because many of those folks react so negatively to me as a "breeder"....

    I appreciated the reminder not to dismiss my own children's expressions regarding their future potential parenting. I absolutely believe that I have said something along the theme of "people often change their minds" when a child has expressed reluctance to parent. Oh naval gazing is a never ending necessity when trying to practice conscious parenting!